Psilocybin vs Nicotine

The Dish has long covered and investigated the medical and spiritual dimensions of psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.” Its potency for mental health, depression, PTSD, and the trauma of end-of-life treatment of cancer. Read it all in one place here. But today, there’s news of new research that examines the use of the drug for people who have found it impossible to quit smoking. Surprise! Its impact is powerful:

Psilocybin_27febThe abstinence rate for study participants was 80 percent after six months, much higher than typical success rates in smoking cessation trials, says Matthew W. Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and the corresponding author on the study.

Approximately 35 percent experience six-month success rates when taking varenicline, which is widely considered to be the most effective smoking cessation drug. Other treatments, including nicotine replacement and behavioral therapies, have success rates that are typically less than 30 percent, Johnson adds.

That’s not a slight improvement over current therapies; it’s a huge jump. And the gain in public health could be substantial.

But it’s important to note that

the hallucinogenic compound was administered as part of a comprehensive cognitive behavior therapy smoking cessation program that included weekly one-on-one counseling sessions and techniques such as keeping a diary before quitting in order to assess when and why cravings occur.

There are responsible and irresponsible ways to reap the benefits from substances too easily tarnished by culture war memories of the past. As with cannabis, psilocybin will make our future better.

A Waking Dream, Ctd

A reader isn’t convinced that psilocybin’s effects are analogous to those of “long-term intensive meditation and prayer”:

For what it’s worth, there is one big difference between experiences on mushrooms and “unusual” experiences as a result of intensive meditation. And the difference is an underlying sense of confusion that exists in drug-altered states and the lack of that confusion in meditative states. Realization from meditation is like stubbing your toe on a rock. It’s obvious and clear. There is no “this is other than it is supposed to be” or “this is strange” feeling despite some very unusual circumstances surrounding the realization. Drug states ultimately leave you confused and doubtful eventually. At least that’s been my experience.

Another passes along the above video, from the Flaming Lips:

Except for the guy in a mushroom suit, the video doesn’t reference psychedelics explicitly. I think it’s safe to say it’s drug-addled, though. Most people hate it, and the comments on the video are mostly from people who couldn’t make it through it. I kind of like it, but I used to be a big acid head.

Here’s the thing. That video seems to get a lot closer to what psychedelics are all about than the talk about expanded consciousness and spirituality and all of that.

Yes, I have had those experiences where the borders between you and others seem to melt away and you feel the presence of the divine. But if you buy your blotter acid by the sheet, you end up at a place that’s closer to the world of this video than you do to God.

When you trip, your brain gets knocked out of its normal ruts, and the experience can be pretty unusual. Then you sober up, and you process it. You put it in a box, you decide what it meant, you create a narrative that describes what happened. “I felt a strong sense of the unity of all things. And the wood grain on this table looked like it was liquid, and moved around a bit.” Or whatever.

Those narrative boxes tend to be narrow and very much reduced from the experience itself. They’re true, as far as they go, but they aren’t really what it was like. Whenever I trip, even if it’s been years, I have a moment when I think, “Oh, I’m back in this place again.” It’s a feeling that’s completely inaccessible to me now that I’m sober, yet completely familiar when I trip. The point is that what people say about the trip afterward is actually fairly different from what it was like in the moment.

The video linked above is actually a pretty good document of that place. It’s not complete, and watching it isn’t the same as tripping. It’s reductive just like the religious narratives are, emphasizing some things, leaving others out. But the product of this reduction is really different from the stuff you usually publish. And as a guy who used to buy his blotter acid by the sheet, I think it’s closer to the mark.

Some people seem to fall into sainthood naturally, as if it’s their destiny. For most of us, though, finding God takes effort – meditation, prayer, a lot of rational thinking to try to come to terms with our ideas about theology, etc. We have to get kicked around in the world, make mistakes, digest those experiences. Mostly, we have to be with people, find sustenance in our connections, give that nurturing back, grow our compassion. It just doesn’t come in a pill.

I love acid. If I weren’t old and long out of touch with drug people, I’d probably take it frequently; as it is, I probably won’t get the chance to do it again. But I love it because I find it fun and interesting, not because it brings me closer to God.

A Waking Dream

Rachel Feltman relays the findings of “the first [psilocybin] study to attempt to relate the behavioral effects to biological changes”:

According to a study published [Thursday] in Human Brain Mapping, the mushroom Psilocybin_27febcompounds could be unlocking brain states usually only experienced when we dream, changes in activity that could help unlock permanent shifts in perspective. … In fact, administration of the drug just before or during sleep seemed to promote higher activity levels during Rapid Eye Movement sleep, when dreams occur. An intriguing finding, [study co-author Robin] Carhart-Harris says, given that people tend to describe their experience on psychedelic drugs as being like “a waking dream.” It seems that the brain may literally be slipping into unconscious patterns while the user is awake.

Carhart-Harris elaborates on his findings:

While the psychedelic state has been previously compared with dreaming, the opposite effect has been observed in the brain network from which we get our sense of “self” (called the default-mode network or ego-system). Put simply, while activity became “louder” in the emotion system, it became more disjointed and so “quieter” in the ego system.

Evidence from this study, and also preliminary data from an ongoing brain imaging study with LSD, appear to support the principle that the psychedelic state rests on disorganised activity in the ego system permitting disinhibited activity in the emotion system. And such an effect may explain why psychedelics have been considered useful facilitators of certain forms of psychotherapy.

In other words, the sense of self and selfishness that we deploy routinely in our practical and daily lives can be attenuated with psiloybin. Feelings of empathy, connectedness, and calm take their place. It’s not permanent, but merely seeing the world from this mountaintop can change your perspective in the foothills and valleys of ordinary existence. It is not for nothing that psilocybin’s effects have often been very similar to those of long-term intensive meditation and prayer. The Dish, for these reasons, has extensively covered the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of psilocybin over the years. But over at Patheos, Gene Veith looks at the new study with a jaundiced eye:

[It’s] is being hailed as revealing positive benefits. What interests me is what the scientists Fresh Colombian magic mushrooms legally on sale in Camden market London June 2005and the media consider to be beneficial.  The active ingredient in the mushrooms makes people more emotional, puts them in a continual dream-like state, turns down their higher cognitive abilities (that is, makes them less rational), and dissolves their ego, making them less “narrow-minded.” Note that in our postmodern culture, such assaults on the mind are all considered good things!

An assault on the mind! It is rather its fuller and deeper opening up away from “the deadliness of doing.” Or, as Carhart-Harris puts it, it “increases the breadth and fluency of cognition” rather than stunting it. It is what the mind, properly understood, was made for.

(Photo: Fresh Colombian magic mushrooms. By Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images. GIF of the psilocybin compound via Wiki.)

Quote For The Day

Fresh Colombian magic mushrooms legally on sale in Camden market London June 2005

“At the hospital they gave me Xanax for anxiety. Xanax doesn’t get rid of your anxiety. Xanax tells you not to feel it for awhile until it stops working and you take the next pill. The beauty of psilocybin is: it’s not medication. You’re not taking it and it solves your problem. You take it and you solve your problem yourself,” – a patient with acute anxiety, after treatment with the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.”

Extensive Dish coverage of psilocybin here.

(Photo: Fresh Colombian magic mushrooms legally on sale in Camden market London June 2005 before such sales became a crime. By Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.)

“This Is God’s Plant”

Matt Melema finds that evangelicals are starting to come around on marijuana:

No one has done a poll of where evangelicals in particular stand on pot, but talking to a dozen or so of them makes me think that the feelings of young evangelicals are shifting as fast as many others of their generation. Given the history of churches decrying marijuana as a “demon weed” which could threaten society, the new attitude represents a generational divide.

weeed1.jpgAnd, increasingly, churches and leading Christian groups aren’t trying to stop this. In the 2006 election, Focus on the Family, then led by culture war veteran James Dobson, was a major force in the anti-marijuana campaign, making large donations and publicly opposing it. By 2012, the younger Jim Daly had replaced Dobson, and Focus mostly stood to the side during the election, contributing a mere $25,000.

Daly has started building relationships with everyone from progressive newspapers to gay activists to Bono. This new approach is reflected in his attitude toward marijuana. He is against legalizing recreational marijuana. But he may be more open toward medical marijuana, remarking that there could be “some medical benefits derived from it.”

What I found most striking in the piece was this from a profile of the Stanleys in OnFaith:

“Satan didn’t create this plant,” says Jesse [Stanley]. “Satan doesn’t create anything. This is God’s plant. And God is moving in the hearts of men and women and children around the world about this plant in ways that I never would’ve imagined five years ago.”

What Stanley is referring to is the potential of the plant to alleviate pain and suffering in ways no prescription drug can. And I do think that the experience of medical marijuana has shifted this debate perhaps more deeply than we truly understand. If you have watched marijuana keep another human being alive and nourished in the worst throes of AIDS, as I have, and then watched them get their life back, it changes you. If you have ever met a child with seizures who, thanks to this plant, can begin to construct a calmer, saner life, it will affect you deeply. To call a plant that can do this a “demon weed” simply becomes nonsensical.

But what’s interesting is how this discovery also leads inexorably to a different approach to responsible, recreational marijuana use.

There is a reason the plant has, throughout the aeons of human history, been related to religion and spirituality. There’s a reason that it’s a sacrament in Rastafarianism. Countless people testify to spiritual insights, intellectual breakthroughs and emotional healing through use of the plant. For many, it works on the human brain very differently than alcohol. For some, it allows for calmer thought, or a heightened aesthetic sense, or just relief from the ordeal of consciousness that speaks to the soul more deeply than many other drugs, barring, of course, other psychotropic, like psilocybin or Ketamine. Of course, this is not a substitute for prayer, or meditation, or doctrine. But it can jog people toward a deeper appreciation of the world, its beauty and its goodness. It acts as a cultural check on the frantic, over-sharing, constantly-updating, overwhelmed life so many of us now share. It has a religious and spiritual aspect that cannot be denied – even as it has been smothered by Cheech and Chong and Seth Rogen (peace be upon him).

It will indeed be a marvel if members of organized religion begin to shift their attitudes to this drug. But, the more you think about it, it shouldn’t surprise. We may well be under-estimating the cultural impact of widespread and legal marijuana use. The human mind is a beautiful thing. And when it unfolds a little, a little more may be possible for the enrichment of our lives

A Journey, Not An Escape, Ctd

NYU psychiatrists have been experimenting with using psilocybin to treat cancer patients. For Nick Fernandez, a study participant who was diagnosed with leukemia in high school, the experience was transformative:

[A]s the drug began to take effect, the blackness inside his head turned into an onrushing cascade of white dots that swiftly morphed into a kaleidoscope of geometric patterns – gears, stars, triangles, trapezoids – in all the colours of the rainbow. He started to hear an insistent voice in his head, telling him over and over: ‘I’m going to show you what I can do.’ Fernandez slowly suspended his skepticism and reluctantly surrendered to the experience. What he perceived to be his spirit guide took him on a Marley’s ghost-style journey, with stops at his own funeral, a hellish place littered with skulls that smelled of death where he was in excruciating pain. Once his agony reached an almost unbearable crescendo, his spirit guide catapulted him through hundreds of light years of space, allowing him to escape the pain. ‘I went into this mystical state, and this intense visual palate took over my mind,’ Fernandez said.

He suddenly found himself in Grand Central Terminal, which was filled with hundreds of people he knew dressed in tuxedos and ball gowns, dancing happily to symphonic music. He spied his girlfriend, Claire, across the dance floor.

They walked towards each other and embraced, which filled him with intense feelings of bliss and joy. Soon he was again catapulted, down into the sewers of the city, and then to the top of the Empire State Building where he serenely surveyed the city just as dawn broke its rosy glow over the skyscrapers. The spirit guide took him from there to a cave in the forest where he went shopping for another body, but the only body to be had was his own.

This realisation gave Fernandez a new appreciation of his body, and all it had been through: the workouts, the swims, the bike rides, the sickness when the cancer cells had taken over, and the chemotherapy drugs that had destroyed them. ‘For the first time in my life, I felt like there was a creator of the universe, a force greater than myself, and that I should be kind and loving,’ he said. ‘Something inside me snapped and I experienced a profound psychic shift that made me realise all my anxieties, defences and insecurities weren’t something to worry about.’

Previous Dish on psychedelics here.

After Medical Marijuana, Medical Psilocybin?

Fresh Colombian magic mushrooms legally on sale in Camden market London June 2005

Greg Miller reports from the third annual Psychedelic Science meeting in Oakland, California:

[Brazilian neuroscientist Dráulio Barros de Araújo and his team] found that ayahuasca reduces neural activity in something called the default mode network, an web of interconnected brain regions that fire up whenever people aren’t focused on any specific task. It’s active when people daydream or let their minds wander, for example. The default mode network has been a hot topic in neuroscience in recent years. Scientists don’t really know what it does, but they love to speculate. One interpretation is that activity in this network may represent what we experience as our internal monologue and may help generate our sense of self.

Last year, British scientists reported that psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, like ayahuasca, reduces activity in the brain’s default mode network. The researchers proposed that interfering with the default network could be how psychedelic drugs cause what users often describe as a disintegration of the self, or even a sense of oneness with the universe.

That effect, compounded with “a growing sense of frustration over the lack of promising new psychiatric drugs in the pipeline,” had attendees intrigued:

Several scientists at the conference pointed to findings that activity in the brain’s default mode network is elevated in people with depression. Because psilocybin and ayahuasca seem to dampen activity in this network, perhaps they could help. It’s hard to connect those dots without a strong dose of speculation, but one idea is that the elevated activity in the default mode network reflects too much attention directed inward. People in the grips of depression, the thinking goes, are trapped in an endless cycle of critical self-examination, and a little neural desynchronization might help them reboot.

But it’s ever-so-hard to bring science to bear on these promising compounds when they are still fucking illegal. In Britain’s case, mushrooms with psilocybin were only banned eight years ago. Instead of examining the properties that could help humans, we have decided to ban them because they might cause someone somewhere a modicum of pleasure and even peace.

(Photo: Fresh Colombian magic mushrooms legally on sale in Camden market London June 2005 before such sales became a crime. By Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.)